Council’s Indecisiveness Comes At Bad Time

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The dreaded worst-case scenario has now become a reality as far as the future of fire service goes in Ocean City.

A mess is another way to describe the current state of affairs after the Ocean City Council’s split vote Tuesday on temporarily naming Ocean City Volunteer Fire Company Chief Chris Larmore to oversee fire service until a permanent appointment is made.

The council’s vote on Tuesday afternoon was quickly followed up Wednesday with an announcement the Ocean City Volunteer Fire Company and its 70-plus members were moving west to become what would essentially be the West Ocean City Volunteer Fire Company. What name the 103-year-old volunteer organization will take is unknown, but the press release was simple: the volunteers will soon have no stake in the resort’s fire protection.

“… the OCVFC has no alternative but to relocate our operations to West Ocean City and to relinquish the primary delivery of fire and rescue services within the corporate limits to the Town of Ocean City. The Town has been so notified and has also been further requested to provide a date certain when their career staff is in place and they no longer require our services,” the press release read.

This is exactly what City Manager Dennis Dare said he did not want in an interview last year. “I can’t emphasize enough that I do support the volunteer fire company. We need a viable volunteer fire company, but we are in transition. … We need a strong combined department. Volunteers can’t do it by themselves. For the town, it would be more expensive to do it by ourselves,” Dare said.

This is a dramatic situation full of passion and emotion. What’s most bizarre here is the city, the 40 or so paid firefighters and the volunteers all seem to want the same thing – the gradual melding of the volunteer services with the town’s emergency services department and the eventual appointment of a paid fire chief to oversee all aspects of fire services. The problem all along has been how to get to that point. That juggernaut surfaced again this week with the paid firefighters not wanting to work under a chief elected by the volunteer company. We surmise if Emergency Services Director Joe Theobald were to be interim chief the volunteers would also cry foul because he’s a city department head.

It’s unbelievable to us the stalemate is becoming a dead end, but residential and commercial property owners in Ocean City need to be following this situation for a number of reasons, namely they have a stake in knowing if they have adequate fire protection as well as how much they will be paying for it.

The first concern here is property and life and death. It’s important to understand the first responders to most fire calls currently are the paid firefighters. They are primarily the folks who are working and responding to fire alarms in the middle of the night throughout the year. If they respond to a call and a fire is found, the volunteers are then called and standard fire policies are then kicked into gear.

Secondly, residents and businesses will see a significant increase in taxes if the volunteers are not on the island. That’s a certainty. The city will be forced to hire dozens of new highly-trained career firefighters, all of which must be well paid and will be members of the union. Additionally, the city will need to figure out what will happen to the fire trucks and equipment currently operated under the auspice of the volunteer company. They are the property of the volunteer company, not the city. All these expenses will be passed on to the consumer and that’s anyone who gets an Ocean City tax bill.

The city has gotten itself in the proverbial sticky wicket and it’s unknown whether this situation can be ironed out. The volunteers have indicated the impasse cannot be fixed. They are moving out. Objective minds understand the volunteers need to slow down and reconsider their steadfast position.

Councilman Jim Hall said this week he would not let matters exacerbate to the point the volunteers make good on their threat and move their operations to West Ocean City. It will be interesting to see who on the council feels the same way. If they want to keep them on the island and help provide critical support during fires, the way to go is appoint Larmore to the temporary post, give him limited authority for the near future and begin immediately looking for a permanent figurehead. This must be done prior to any planned strategic retreat.

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